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(News-Press) - Panther deaths are part of life Southwest Florida. The big cats have died here for thousands of years..

What's odd is that these normally reclusive, nocturnal animals are showing up more and more in more-urban settings, sometimes in the middle of the day. Last week, a 3-year-old uncollared female panther was killed by a vehicle near mile marker 134 along Interstate 75, just a few hundred yards from the city limits of Fort Myers.

The death marked the ninth by road kill this year and the 14th carcass recovered in 2014. At a time when the panther population is growing, and more and more cars are on Southwest Florida roads, a species that was once rarely seen or recorded is showing up more and more in urbanized settings.

Earlier this year a young male panther was captured at Clam Pass Park in North Naples and moved to the southern portion of the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed, or CREW east of Naples. Last summer, a male panther spent several months living and feeding at Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve not far from busy Colonial Boulevard and I-75. Biologists think that cat was killed by a car late last summer, which is about the same time the sightings of the Six Mile panther stopped being reported.

"We're keeping out fingers crossed because we hope it wasn't 'our' panther," said Mary Rawl, executive director of the Calusa Nature Center & Planetarium, where a panther was photographed by tourists on April 18. "I was afraid (of a panther being hit by a car) on Ortiz or Colonial, but on (Interstate) 75?"

What are the odds?

Take the number of panthers killed between Jan. 1 and May 1, carry those out through the remainder of 2014 and you get a record year for panther road kills and overall deaths, 27 and 42, respectively. The current records are 17 for road kills and 26 overall.

That kind of math, though, doesn't add up, said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission panther biologist Darrell Land.

"It just doesn't work that way," Land said. "You can go ahead and play the game, but I suspect you'll be wrong. It's kind of random chance. Sometimes they come in spurts. Sometimes you go weeks or months without having a road kill."

Land said biologists don't know the range of the uncollared female found dead Friday but that she had lived a somewhat urbanized existence.

"It's very likely she was a resident cat in part of that area — that it was part of what she was using as her entire region," Land said.

Land said it's not surprising that a female panther was found dead in an area that was used by a male last summer.

"What one panther likes, the next one should like it very well," he said. "And they are an adaptable animal. It's wrong to assume they'll only be found in the deepest, darkest places in Florida."

The female was north and east of the main panther travel, feeding and breeding grounds — which are Big Cypress National Preserve, Everglades National Park, CREW and Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.

Biologists say one of the next steps in the panther recovery process is having females occupy lands north of the Caloosahatchee River. Female panthers haven't lived north of the river in decades, and any females moving to the central and northern parts of the state would likely be another indicator that South Florida's wild lands are at panther capacity.

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Saving the cats

Considered one of the most endangered mammals in the world, panthers likely number 150 or more, up drastically from just 20 years ago — when the big cats were on the brink of extinction and there were 30 or fewer living in the wild. Biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission have worked for decades to rebuild the breeding population, releasing several female Texas cougars in the 1990s to increase genetic diversity.

Animal underpasses were built along problematic roads such as Highway 29 south of Immokalee and Corkscrew Road in Estero to the cost of about $4 million apiece.

Groups such as the Florida Wildlife Federation have pushed for more underpasses on problematic roads. Recent underpasses — smaller but equally eff9*ective — now cost $1 million or less. More wildlife underpasses are being planned, but most can't be completed until those specific roads are being rebuilt or modified.

A wildlife passage is being built into the State Road 80 expansion east of LaBelle, and there are plans to build wildlife paths along the eastern stretches of State Road 82.

"It's always up on our radar," said Land. "It really matters when a road is expected to be upgraded or modified. Last summer we completed a smaller design and integrated a wildlife crossing into Country Road 846 between Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary and Immokalee."

Nancy Payton with the Florida Wildlife Federation said she thinks more needs to be done in these areas.

"(The mortality numbers) tell me and probably others that there's a lot more work to be done on 846 for that to be a safer road for panthers and other wildlife," Payton said. "If panthers are getting killed, many other wildlife are getting hit on those roads."

Data from the panther deaths isn't wasted as biologists and support groups compile mortality numbers for the entire state each year and compare those during habitat evaluations and development proposals.

"These incidents aren't happening in a vacuum," Payton said. "The information that is coming out of these deaths is helping other panthers as we plan for transportation needs."

Florida panther

(Puma concolor coryi)

Appearance: Males can measure up to 7 feet from tail to nose and weigh about 130 pounds on average. Adult females are about 6 feet in length and weigh 70 to 75 pounds. Lifespan in the wild is 10 to 15 years.

Habitat and range: Males occupy about 200 square miles and will often fight to the death over territory. Females require about 75 square miles. These cats once ranged throughout the Southeastern U.S. and are now found almost exclusively south of Lake Okeechobee.

Diet: Strict carnivores, adult panthers feed mostly on deer, feral hogs, raccoons and armadillos. Adults must eat a deer or hog once a week.

Reproduction: Adults reach sexual maturity by age 3. Gestation period is 92 to 96 days with females generally producing up to four kittens. Births are most common in spring but can occur at any time of year. Kittens weigh about 1 pound, are grayish-brown with spots and are born with eyes shut.

Sources: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, floridapanthernet.org

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